3 arrested in Lindsay murder

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A murder mystery that began with a report of a missing person in Lindsay unfolded throughout last week, ending with the arrest of the primary suspect at a train station halfway across the country.

At 7:14 a.m. on Sept. 14, Tulare County Sheriff’s deputies were dispatched to the 900 block of N. Laurel Ave. in Lindsay after a mother reported her son was missing. Michael Avalos, 20, of Lindsay was last seen on his mother’s front porch at 1:30 a.m. earlier that morning. When she noticed he was not home, the mother went outside to find blood and his cell phone in the front yard. During the investigation, detectives with the Sheriff’s Violent Crimes Unit discovered Avalos was last seen with Joshua Stepp, 23, and Nathan Hunt, 22, both of Lindsay at 2:30 a.m. next door at Hunt’s residence. Detectives also discovered blood in Hunt’s front yard as well.

A few hours later, a rancher reported he had discovered a burnt vehicle with burnt human remains in his orchard in the area of Avenue 224 and Road 236 several miles southeast of Lindsay. When detectives ran the plates the vehicle was registered to Stepp. The body was later identified as Avalos.

As detectives pieced together the scenario, they determined Avalos was stabbed in the front yard, loaded into Hunt’s car and then driven to the orchard where the suspects set fire to the car with Avalos still inside. Sgt. Gary Hunt with the Violent Crimes Unit said detectives believe the car was set on fire at about 4 a.m.

Yesterday, an autopsy revealed the cause of death in Avalos’ murder was blunt force trauma to the head and multiple stab wounds to the neck and chest. The stabbing is believed to be gang related as both Avalos and Stepp are former members of the Norteno gang. Sgt. Hunt said there is no evidence that Nathan Hunt was ever a member of a gang. He also said no weapon had been found.

“We believe the relationship between the three individuals were that they were friends,” said Sgt. Hunt. “We are not aware of any prior disagreements between [Avalos and Stepp].”

Hunt was arrested at his home without incident and booked into the Tulare County Main Jail on charges of murder and accessory to murder after the fact. Detectives then served search warrants at a residence in the 19700 block of Road 231 in Strathmore and then at his mother’s home in the 600 block of N. Homassel in Lindsay. Stepp’s mother, 58-year-old Sandra Stepp of Lindsay, was arrested without incident. She is being held at the Bob Wiley Detention Facility on charges of accessory to murder after the fact and arson.

On Sept. 15, detectives obtained a no bail warrant for the arrest of Joshua Stepp on a charge of murder. Stepp was arrested without incident at an Amtrak station in Kansas City, Mo. At about 4:24 a.m. PST on Sept. 16. The U.S. Marshal’s Western District of Missouri Task Force located Stepp while he was getting off the train. He was turned over to detectives from the Kansas City Police Department and then booked into the Jackson County Detention Facility. As of press time, Stepp was still being held their awaiting extradition to Tulare County.

“Detectives were able to confirm with the Amtrak station in Fresno that [Stepp] had bought a ticket,” Sgt. Hunt said. “The Marshals were waiting for him at the station in Kansas City.”

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